It was around 11 in the morning a few weeks ago that Joel Berndt and I picked through the bushes in Eastern Cemetery. Neighbors complain about pests that come from the cemetery’s overgrowth. When we cut away branches and bramble, there’s a 50/50 chance that we’ll either find trash left from somebody’s party or a headstone that’s been damaged or vandalized. We had a trash bag full of empty six packs, candy wrappers, crushed cigarette packs and bike parts.
This is just scratching the surface of the problem of Eastern Cemetery. Quite literally. Under the dirt, the property is an unorganized mess of graves.
Every few years Eastern Cemetery ends up on the news for something or other. The first time it drew national media attention was during the ’80s when it came to light that the Eastern Cemetery Corporation had, since the 1850s, been knowingly mistreating human remains. Graves began to be reused, bodies moved and reburied without informing families. “Improperly interred” is just a fancy way of saying that someone did something to real human remains, and it wasn’t good. It wasn’t respectful. Eastern is full of improperly interred remains.
Some of the headstones aren’t over the bodies they identify. Some of the headstones have been moved. Some of the headstones are vandalized or broken into pieces. There hasn’t been a caretaker since the 1980s. There are sinkholes. There are holes in the walls. There are snakes, rats, wildly overgrown plants, sinkholes, trees that are dangerously close to falling.
This isn’t just trash we’re picking up. Eastern Cemetery is a cache of Louisville history and culture. It’s the source of ghost stories and urban legends stemming from a long history of corporate malpractice and abuse of graves. The methods are many and the history of the cemetery is extremely intricate.
Everything about Eastern Cemetery is uncertain. The corporation that owned the cemetery is not legally defunct, but they have been inactive for about 20 years. Eastern shares a trust fund with two other local cemeteries, but the money can’t be touched. The only groundskeepers have been volunteer groups and occasional visits from Dismas Charities.
Andy Harpole, owner of the Louisville Stigmatorium, a shop specializing in odd antique and vintage collectibles, has been organizing these clean up days since about March beginning of the year. So here I am as a member of the Eastern Cemetery Clean-Up Crew.
On any given Sunday, there’s about 10 of us. We drink Heine Brothers in the shade of our tent, eat doughnuts or ice cream or whatever has so kindly been brought to us by one of our fellow volunteers, picnicking on the road beside the graves. It’s never felt weird to me before. The weird part is being so intimately close to someone else’s life—or death—when you’re actually out there on the grounds trying to clean.
We found one headstone broken in half, face down on the ground.
Joel spotted it in a pile of pachysandra. He got down on his knees and rolled over both halves of the headstone, fitting them together to try and read it.
“This must be a child,” Joel said, measuring the length of the halves with his hand.
We sat in the rising heat. I already had sleeves of dirt and there was sweat running down my back. I had to ask myself who hangs out in a cemetery on a Sunday morning? I’d taken work off for this. I’d turned down parties and a few extra hours of sleep for this. Why?
Maybe I empathize with that decrepit old cemetery. I grew up near Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. I saw a lot of funerals. People do this for closure. People just want to come visit their loved ones and grieve their loss. This is not possible at Eastern right now.
The basic guidelines for a cemetery allow 1,000-1,100 bodies per acre, says Phil DiBlasi, staff archeologist at the University of Louisville. On a 28-acre plot, Eastern Cemetery ought to have plenty of space. Instead, there are 48,000 buried in 16,000 graves. That’s the low estimate.
“Everybody has this idea…oh, they’re stacked. And I’m thinking, oh, yeah, like I stack books, or I stack cordwood…No,” he said, “If I take a backhoe with four-inch steel teeth and dig through your skeletonized grandmother, I can assure you, she’s not stacked. They basically pour her back in there.”
Landscaping is impossible because of the abundance of unmarked burials.
But we’re doing the best we can with what we have. It seems like there’s a headstone hidden in every thicket. I can’t help but think that maybe some of those folks who can’t find their relatives’ graves aren’t having any luck because the graves are literally unidentifiable.
There’s no simple way to talk about Eastern Cemetery. To understand Eastern Cemetery is to sit through a story where the short version takes more than an hour. For DiBlasi, it’s taken decades. In 1989, DiBlasi was approached by the Kentucky Attorney General’s office with an offer to take over the project.
His progress, to date, lies in a research building where rows of industrial steel shelves hold hundreds of acid-free boxes filled with recovered human remains. There is a trust fund for the remains through the University of Louisville. They are protected and preserved and they’ll stay that way.
There’s no particular ritual to the way DiBlasi walks through the stacks, pointing out this box or that urn. This is no morgue. It’s just the storage place for exhumed bodies. There is no lack of inquiries from people trying to find relatives. Often, DiBlasi has to break the bad news that the grave they’re looking for may have been reburied, buried over, or somehow destroyed. This room only has a fraction of the people ever buried in Eastern Cemetery.
The news just gets worse and worse. Besides bugs, snakes, and vermin, the Eastern Cemetery Clean-Up Crew has to be on the lookout for coffin parts and bones. Several people have mentioned to me that hedgehogs keep bringing up coffin handles and human bones.
This is the type of thing that happens in old abandoned family plots deep in the country woods. Not smack in the middle of Louisville. Not while people are still coming to tend graves. Once we were out there and there was an old man tending to his family’s little plot. Nobody else was doing it, so he said he came out every now and then to keep the grass trimmed.
Most cemeteries have caretakers. This one doesn’t. And so all the trash, all the sinkholes, the plastic flowers that that get blown apart over time, the hedgehogs, the overgrowth—all of this would not be acceptable at any other cemetery. And so it shouldn’t be acceptable at Eastern. For that matter, it shouldn’t be acceptable at Scherdein or Greenwood, either, which are the other properties owned by the Eastern Cemetery Corporation.
Right now, we only have the resources to barely handle Eastern on a regular basis. “Handling” is subjective. We’re trying to reel it in and bring it to a state that can be acceptably maintained. Getting it to that point is going to be a long, hard road.
Dismas Charities has a limited reach, for all their visible hard work. Their time is split between multiple obligations, and so they can mow and trim and clean, but that’s unfortunately the extent of their attentions. It’s worthwhile and it’s relieving to see. Andy and I met with the attorney general and Dismas’s director, Robert Lanning. We talked about working out a schedule to supplement Dismas’s efforts. In the long term, our goals are different. We want to beautify. We want to restore. That’s 28 acres of culture and history.
We are not under any illusions about how tall of an order this is.
The plot of the movie Poltergeist was hinged on vengeful spirits enraged over their graves being moved and a home built over their bodies. You would think that Eastern Cemetery would be spilling over with angry ghosts bumping elbows and howling from their crowded graves.
For the record, they’re not.
The sounds are so soft out here. Sounds ebb on the warm breeze. Crickets rustle in the dry grass. The church bells are distant and non-disruptive. In some ways that’s why Eastern is beautiful. As headstones fall face down into the dirt, they get covered with pachysandra running amok. Weeds and flowers grow around them and pull them back down.
I don’t believe in ghosts. Andy doesn’t believe in ghosts. We’re not at Eastern to ghost hunt. We’re not at Eastern to tramp through the grounds and disrespect graves and do séances over the bodies of other peoples’ relatives.
Every time I bring up Eastern, it seems like somebody has a relative there, or knows somebody who does. Everyone notices how poor the conditions are. It’s not like this has gone unnoticed, it’s just been in limbo for the past two decades.
That limbo needs to change.
Laura Valentine is a University of Louisville student and a member of the Eastern Cemetery Clean-Up Crew. She is a former WFPL intern.